In early March, it seemed both sides in Venezuela had decided a long drawn-out crisis was better than civil war. It appears the leader of one side now has changed his mind.
In January, Juan Guaido challenged President Nicolas Maduro on the grounds that his re-election a year ago had been fraudulent. Guaido claimed to be the legitimate president, and Maduro did not arrest him, presumably because he feared that he might lose a battle in the streets.
Since Guaido wasn’t sure he would win that battle, either, and also was unsure how much support he would get from Washington, he, too, avoided a showdown.
Both men knew they were on shaky ground legally — Maduro won a rigged election; Guaido didn’t even run in it — but this is not a legal matter. It’s a power struggle in which Maduro still controls the army, but Guaido has powerful foreigners and a large, but unknown, portion of the Venezuelan population on his side. So each men decided to play a waiting game, in the hope the tide eventually would turn in his direction.
Now Guaido has decided it’s time for a showdown. Monday, he released a three-minute video showing him together with men in Venezuelan military uniforms and claiming that the armed forces have come over to his side. “The moment is now,” he said, but it is not clear why he thinks so.
By going onto a military base and trying to turn the military against the government, he has committed treason, and Maduro has to respond. Yet it is not at all certain that Guaido’s supporters, numerous though they may be, will win the battle in the streets.
He summoned them to come out on the streets of Caracas on Tuesday, and called on the army to support them. They did come, but so did Maduro’s supporters (or more precisely, people who still support Hugo Chavez’s original revolution, though not many have the same deep affection for Maduro). More than 100 people were injured during the day.
And yes, dozens of National Guardsmen did switch sides Tuesday, but thousands did not. More importantly, the regular army has remained loyal to Maduro. Guaido called his supporters out again Wednesday, but at the time of writing, there was no sign that Maduro was about to flee the country, or that his army was going to defect.
It’s too early to be sure, but it looks like Guaido moved too soon. He probably will be in jail soon if he does not flee the country. His political mentor and party leader, Leopoldo Lopez, already sought refuge with his family in the Spanish embassy. And Maduro already has claimed on television that he has defeated the “attempted military coup.”
What persuaded Guaido to abandon the slow and cautious strategy he has pursued for the past four months and go for broke instead? The suspicion must be that he did it under pressure from Washington, where U.S. President Trump is impatient, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is compliant, and nobody understands Venezuela very well.
Except the American armed forces, which have made it quietly clear from the start that they do not want to end up giving military support to the Venezuelan rebels. But nobody in Trump’s Washington listens to the army.
What persuaded Guaido to abandon the slow and cautious strategy he has pursued for the past four months and go for broke instead?
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England